Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why I'm Still An Evangelical: one anecdotal reason

Sometimes I think that nostalgia is under-rated. We usually dismiss it, but it might actually be a window into some of our deepest longings. Some may know that I grew up in a UCC church, but that didn't stop me from getting most of my spiritual nourishment as a teenager from the local evangelical churches (they were the ones who seemed to care about teenagers the most). In fact, there was hardly a lick of "UCC" in me. My entire theological/spiritual worldview was evangelical, through and through.

I'm using the term "evangelical" pretty ambiguously here... and that'll just have to be alright for right now. In general, when I say "evangelical," I'm referring to a specific style and theological perspective—one which elevates biblical authority, personal devotion to the second person of the trinity, and, on at least a level, carries a flair for the experiential (just ask which churches have the most rockin' worship bands, if you don't know what I'm talking about). In evangelicalism, the stakes of faith are high. For mainline Christians, the stakes are high as well, but in my experience, evangelicalism places those stakes in the personal (or more accurately, perhaps, in the individual) where mainliners place it in the communal life of the church (think of social justice issues, for example). The all-too familiar negative version of this evangelical personalism is, "if you don't accept Jesus as your personal savior, you're going to hell." But there is a positive side, a side which says, "you are invited to follow Jesus, to be a part of his life, his mission." And perhaps the most distinctive thing I received from the evangelicalism of my past is the invitation to fall in love, "Jesus loves you, and wants you to fall in love too!" It was this invitation to love—some would call it a "personal relationship with Jesus"—that drew me in. Sure, I was attracted to the emotional worship songs, the firey sermons, and the cool youth ministry programs, but what kept me coming back was the mystery of this relationship, a mystery which tapped into my deepest longings—my longing to be accepted, to be loved, to find my identity. I longed to fall in love like that and be loved as deeply as it was promised that Christ loved me. And compared to how it is now, it was so simple back then.

Now, for as much as I love love love theology and Biblical studies—for as much as I believe in the discipline of asking questions, hard questions, about the deepest and most fundamental claims of the Christian tradition—somewhere in me there still exists this innocent and simple love for Jesus Christ. And so, for this long, I have refused to believe that deep theological refection is incompatible with a "personal relationship" with Jesus Christ. In fact, I think they belong to each other. This is, or course, not without some profound difficulties. The deeper my questions dive, the more complex the relationship gets. It's complicated. The honeymoon is over. But I still believe that at the depth of all of it, the real foundation and basis for these questions and these "realistic" inquiries is the love that God has for us and the invitation to fall in love with Jesus... over and over again.

And so sometimes I sort of nostalgically look back to the days when I would just sit and pray and bask in my "personal relationship" with Jesus, when I would sing those worship songs, mean what they say, and feel God's presence with me without wondering if I was just being emotionally manipulated by acoustic guitar strings. I remember when it was simple and I still believe that the simple faith is still in there somewhere, warming my heart even as the complexity challenges. For me, my nostalgia is a window into the deepest longings of my soul, longings which have expressed themselves in the very impulse which challenges them, their necessary and corresponding impulse, the impulse of theological reflection.

And so this may be a somewhat anecdotal reason to hold on to my evangelicalism. I could say a lot more about the features of conversions and biblical authority. But for me, it all goes back to the invitation to fall in love, an invitation I received from my evangelical heritage.

2 comments:

Evan Nehring said...

Wesley, it's a sweet post. Evangelicals have been demonized, ironically, as morally bankrupt for insisting upon biblical truth. Blows my mind how we've come to this. No group is faultless, but you've brought out the authentically good. Thanks for that!

Evan
www.EvanNehring.com

Steve Swope said...

Wes my friend, this is both powerful and personal - and a wonderful reflection on/of you. Not only that, but I'm going to borrow some of your thoughts for my Jan. 5 sermon - many thanks!